- OnScreen Chief Film Critic
As titles go, it doesn’t get much more straightforward than director David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Past the title, though, there is little else in the film that is direct and straightforward. Picked up out of Sundance, it is a very unconventional film featuring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, both of whom Lowery previous worked with on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
Affleck and Mara, referred to only as “C” and “M” respectively, are a young married couple living in an ordinary suburban house. The opening few scenes revolve around their home life, which has their ups and downs like any couple. Things take a sudden turn when C is involved in a car accident outside of their home that kills him. He awakes as a ghost in the morgue, covered in a giant white sheet, and returns to their home, mostly observing M’s and other’s lives as they pass through the house over an indeterminate number of years.
The film is a ghost story told from the perspective of the ghost, though it is not at all a horror movie. Rather, it is more of a meditation on the ties people have with other people and locations. We all have connections with people and places we’ve lived in our lives. Telling its tale from the perspective of an observational ghost imbues the film with a strange sense of melancholy. Rather than something that used to be, here, instead, the something remains, but the person longing for it is no longer there in the same way as before.
During C’s journey through time in this house, we are shown more glimpses of his marriage to M, and how he was much more fond of the place than she was, and how his reluctant to move and her insistence on moving created tension in their relationship. Lowery himself has said that part of the genesis of this film came from him and his wife arguing about moving from Dallas to LA. Given the strong pull that nostalgia has in many people’s lives, the haunting melancholy of the film is something people can relate to.
One scene, however, highlights the dangers and limits of nostalgia. At one point, C wanders past a window and happens to see another ghost in a window of the house next door. In a light-hearted moment, subtitles of “Hello” and “Hi” appear when the two ghosts wave to one another. That mirthful moment quickly turns, though, when the ghost in the other house say it is waiting for someone, but when asked, “Who,” the ghost replies, “I don’t remember.”
It’s a very static film, with shots that linger and linger long beyond when a normal film would normally cut away. The aspect ratio of the film is also unique. It’s not the typical widescreen presentation of most films today but instead uses a 1:33:1 ratio with rounded corners that makes most of the film look like a photo album come to life which really adds to the ethereal, haunting beauty of the picture.
Affleck and Mara play very well off of each other when they are together, very comfortable and natural. Mara, in what may be one of the best scenes of the year, returns home shortly after C’s death, with a pie left on the counter by someone for her. She proceeds to eat the pie in one sitting over a nearly interminable five minute take. The scene conveys emotions ranging from grief to rage, the importance of comfort food, and is also subtly humorous. All the while, C’s ghost looks on.
Most directors would not put their main star under a sheet for the majority of their film and have him silently linger on screen for most of that time. It’s a bold move by Lowery and a challenge for Affleck, but it works. There are a few moments where he reacts to things he observes, and one moment where he explicitly rages and acts like a legit poltergeist. Other than that, he slowly moves about the house to watch M over time or to take in a nihilistic soliloquy about the universe by a guy he doesn’t know at a party. But even covered by that sheet, Affleck is acting. His almost imperceptible movements and being under the sheet make him a great blank slate for the audience to project their thoughts and emotions onto him.
A Ghost Story, picked up immediately coming out of Sundance, is one of those unconventional, purely Sundance kind of films. It’s also unique and meditative, telling a non-horror story of a haunted house from a perspective that is atypical. Despite being draped in a sheet like a kid on Halloween for most of the movie, Casey Affleck anchors the film as an eerie presence on this journey through time and place. It’s an impressive conceptual achievement from Lowery too, who has shown that he is as adept at making a big studio film like Pete’s Dragon as he is making something small and independent like this. It’s not a film that everyone will find appealing. It is a beautiful film, though, about love and grief if you are able to get on its wavelength.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars